Hunter Heck joked that when she decided to run for student body president, pandemic response wasn’t a part of her plans. Now, her job involves encouraging students to follow the Texas Tech University's COVID-19 guidelines.
“We walk around campus," Heck said, "and even if there’s someone who isn't in compliance, I haven’t had an interaction with someone where I reminded them to wear a mask where they didn't put it on and say ‘you know what, you’re right. Thank you.’”
Tech is relying on peer pressure to enforce COVID-19 precautions. It’s working, for the most part, in classrooms and campus buildings. But those environments aren't what worries Lubbock Health Department Director Katherine Wells.
“I’m concerned about gatherings that don’t have rules in place, that haven’t gone through an approval process. I’m concerned about, you know, 50 people in a backyard without masks on.”
Backyard parties like one seen in a video that went viral last weekend. In it, a young woman who's allegedly a Tech student holds a red plastic cup. She doesn't have a mask on and she is standing pretty close to others.
"Everyone's like 'don't you have COVID? Don't you literally have COVID?' Yes, I f****** have COVID. The whole f****** world has COVID," she said in the video that was publicly shared.
She flips the camera view and shows a backyard party with at least 20 people. The city currently prohibits gathings of more than 10.
"I'm having a good time," she said.
Five days after it was shared on Twitter by an upset Tech student, the video had over 900,000 views. Tech’s Dean of Students Matt Gregory says the university is addressing the video, but couldn’t elaborate due to privacy laws.
Even before that video went viral, two Tech students were trying to address the problem on their own by starting a Twitter account called TTU COVID Watch. They share posts of risky behavior that they find or receive through direct messages.
Some posts show students partying in large groups. A common party theme is "white lies." People write a fib about themselves on a white t-shirt with a black marker.
Other tweets from the account criticize the university for its handling of the pandemic.
“All we can do is show what’s happening and hope that someone from higher up, you know, will use their power to help mitigate what’s going on," said one of the students running the account.
She’s a junior and asked not to be named. The other student who co-runs the @TTUCovidWatch account is a senior. She says they’re not doing it to get attention, but just want to hold people accountable.
“We would all love for campus to be able to be open," said the senior. "But because of the irresponsible actions of a small subset of students and because of the inaction of the university to do the things that they should be doing, it’s endangering even a hybrid level of education.”
Many classes this semester use a hybrid model that combines online and in-person elements. Two-thirds of classes meet face-to-face. Both administrators of the TTUCOVIDWatch account said they think classes should move back to fully online.
City and university officials said last week that they knew a spike in COVID-19 cases would happen when students came back to Lubbock. Parties and backyard barbecues are a part of the college experience. But they weren't quite expecting this.
Lubbock reported more than 1,500 new infections last week, the most in a single week since the pandemic reached the city in March.
Health Director Katherine Wells has called the police to report parties in her own neighborhood, Tech Terrace, where a lot of college students live. Mayor Dan Pope says the city is taking action.
“We’re breaking up parties. We’re issuing tickets if there's violations of, alcohol violations," he said at last week's regular COVID-19 news conference. "We will look for hot spots in the community, and if we see hot spots, for instance, an apartment pool or something, then we will work with the apartment to make sure we slow the spread down and make sure they know the significance of what’s going on.”
Gregory added in a statement that students should report unlawful gatherings to the university. Details like dates, names and addresses are helpful.
University President Lawrence Schovanec said if cases continue to climb, the school could shut down in-person classes for two weeks and have students self-isolate.
“We’re prepared to do it, to alter our course," he said last week. "And we have begun to plan for that.”
The university won’t say how many students need to test positive for them to revert to fully-online learning. Schovanec said leadership is monitoring the rate cases are increasing, class attendance and the availability of quarantine accommodations for student who test positive, among other measures.
Free COVID-19 testing was expanded on campus last week following the case spike. Right now, more than 500 students actively have the virus.